Five-Star Food for Thought

Charlie Dickerson - Ecuador


December 4, 2019

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Now that I’ve been sick in bed all week and have finished every episode of Black Mirror, I guess all I’ve got left to do is catch up on the blogging. Before I get into the main topic of this post, I’ll provide a brief update on what I’ve been up to over the past month. I apologize for the beefiness of this post, but I encourage you all to read it in its entirety.

For the most part, I maintained my pretty normal schedule as outlined in my previous post: Mondays and Wednesdays I leave my house at 7:00 AM to go to the university and work at the lab until 3:00, then I bus back to Sayausí to teach English classes until 7:00 PM. Tuesdays and Thursdays I work on web/media stuff for my apprenticeship, usually from home or at a cafe in Cuenca. Fridays I’m at the lab from 8:00 to 1:00, then Spanish class from 2:00 to 5:00.

There was a solid week when I was feeling crappy and ended up watching the impeachment hearings all day (not sure why I thought that would make me feel better).

In the middle of November, my cohort had a regional reconnect – a day to hang out and debrief about our experiences – at Baños de Cuenca, which are some hot springs nearby (no, not bathrooms).

A couple weekends ago I went to a wedding with my host sisters a couple of my buddies from a different gap year program, and we danced our hearts out. Hopefully pictured below. Yes, that is me with the corn rows.


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All last week, the whole southern cohort (~25 of us; there should be a photo of the group somewhere in this post) had our first Learning Seminar at Puerto López, a small beach town eight hours from Cuenca. We got to go hiking and snorkeling at Isla de la Plata (AKA “Poor Man’s Galápagos,” blue footed boobies pictured below), which was an absolute blast, and I surfed a bunch with a fellow Southern Californian.


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One of the activities the staff had us prepare for during the Learning Seminar was a debate about voluntourism, which will be the launchpad for the main topic of this post. Voluntourism is a rather broad term but encapsulates programs that take people from developed countries to volunteer abroad – one could argue this includes programs like Global Citizen Year and the Peace Corps.

Up until last week, I had no doubt that I was doing something positive for the world by being here. After being exposed to the arguments that voluntourists do more harm than good, I have questioned both my intent and my impact, but my stance still remains. I’d like to deconstruct the three main arguments in the context of my situation and, in doing so, hopefully lend insight as to why I’m here.

The first talking point I’d like to address is the notion that we are temporary volunteers, and therefore any positive impact we might make is countered by the fact that we develop relationships to leave them behind soon after. I had to sit and think for a while to figure out how I feel about this one. I first thought about the day I’ll leave in four months. It’s going to be really hard saying goodbye to my host siblings and parents who have so graciously welcomed me into their home. Before arriving, I envisioned – rather ignorantly – that the purpose of a host family was to offer a home base and not much more. Rather than solely providing food to eat and a bed at night, my host family is the heart of my experience. The bonds I have formed with my host parents and three siblings have taught me more about life here than any other aspect of my experience. But I know that’s only half of the story. Have my host family and community gained anything from having me? Will leaving them abruptly in March detract from my positive impact? I can’t speak for them, but I’d like to think the answer to that first question is yes. From helping my siblings and mom with English homework for hours to jamming on guitar with my host brother, I can say that, in those simple ways, I have been a positive guest. Any time I am gone for a few days on a program retreat, the “Familia” group chat blooms to life and I get texts asking for updates, saying they miss me. As for that second question, I think it ties into the age-old debate of if it’s worth it to experience love and loss or better to never love at all. In my book, it is always worth it. The experiences I have shared with my host family continue to shape me, and I believe it is the same in the other direction. No matter how difficult the goodbye will be, we are all coming out the other end with broadened perspectives and, thus, stronger empathy; rather than detracting from the positive volunteer work I am doing, I believe these relationships will only add to the positive mark I leave on Sayausí.

The second argument against voluntourism is that unskilled volunteers without specific technical experience do not offer anything new to the community. While I do offer skills through photography, graphic design, and web development, I believe that the most important thing I bring to the table is perspective. In the context of my apprenticeship, I represent a major target population for the tourism organization: English-speaking foreigners. I can lend insight to what might work best for advertisements geared towards English speakers. More than anything, I can translate stuff. And from talking with other fellows, the perspectives that we offer is helpful in all of their apprenticeships as well, such as teaching English in schools, working at a refuge for mistreated women and children, or working at a home for the elderly. If nothing else, we provide new thought processes to attack challenges in a new way. I want to mention that all of these ideas are not just thoughts that I have developed on my own. When we were preparing to start at our apprenticeships, our team leaders briefed us on the fact that, at times, we will feel useless; there are certain challenges that we will face that are bigger than we. They specifically said, however, that the organizations with which we will work are eager, more than anything, to learn from our ways of thinking.

The final argument I’ll talk about is that “personal growth” is often a primary motivation for embarking on volunteer/service trips, and that it inherently contradicts the purpose of helping others. I don’t want to try to debunk this because I completely agree with it, despite the fact that I fall into that exact, privileged mindset. Why do I need to go volunteer in a foreign country in order to find myself? Obviously, I want to have a positive impact on my community, leaving it better than how it was when I came here, but I find myself measuring my success by evaluating my personal growth. I can honestly say that I have never been so proud of the person that I am as I am right now. In the past, I always put others before myself to such an extent that I did the bare minimum for my own development; in school, I put in enough effort to get the grades I wanted, but all else was dedicated towards others. I have no regret for any of that, though, because it all made me happy – making others happy. But that isn’t sustainable. Paradoxically, taking this time to prioritize myself has taught me about my role in the lives of those around me. It sure as hell hasn’t been easy, though. In order to facilitate the greatest growth within myself, I have had to prioritize certain relationships over others. I beat myself up for falling silent to those who have played such vital roles in my life. If I had known what this journey entailed for me, I wouldn’t have made empty promises to stay in touch, and it hurts to admit that. I miss them immensely, but I know that my presence and focus are needed elsewhere at this point in time. On the other hand, the people from home whom I still talk with on a regular basis have been crucial in helping me remember who I am and where I come from as I pursue the latest and greatest version of myself. And what does this version of Charlie look like? Well, aside from the moustache, longer hair, and my new name, “Carlitos,” it can be summed up in a handful of adjectives.

Knowingly ignorant: The more I learn about the world, the more I realize how little I know – how much I am ignorant to. In my last post, I explained the political climate in Ecuador. Prior to stepping foot in Ecuador, I knew nothing about it. I wanted to learn more about the context of the riots, so I did a Google search and expected a brief explanation of everything I needed to know. With that one search, the floodgates opened, inundating me with the relevant history of Ecuador that has led to the situation today. In addition, I saw the interconnectedness between what’s going on here and the political unrest in other Latin American countries. Since then, I’ve better understood that, no matter how much I think I know, there’s about a thousand times as much that I don’t know. Having this awareness is overwhelming, humbling, and exciting, and it contributes to an enhanced global mindset.

Empathetic: When I first learned about the rampant xenophobia towards Venezuelan refugees, I was overcome with anger at the lack of empathy I saw within so many Ecuadorians, including within my host family. I soon realized my own hypocrisy in that mindset. We are all a product of our experiences. My experience of having parents that teach near the Mexico-US border, teaching students whose families have been deported, has given me a sense of empathy towards those who seek refuge in my country. When I came to Ecuador, I carried that sense of empathy. However, people like my host family have not had that same kind of experience. Instead, they see the news stories skewed to portray the select few Venezuelans who have brought violence. I recognized my blatant lack of empathy towards the xenophobic and tried to put myself in their shoes. I found that hating on them for their lack of perspective does no good; rather, constructive conversations to lend insight into a new perspective, bit by bit, can bring about positive change.

Powerless: From the aforementioned xenophobia to racial, gender, and sexual discrimination – from the corrupt politics to the polarized income inequality, I see how issues here, while they manifest in different forms, are not too far off from the issues I see at home. Knowing my ignorance, these probably persist in other countries that I am blind to now. I, as one person, feel powerless to the systems, cultures, and institutions at the root of these issues.


Empowered: There is hope, though. Being surrounded by such a bright group of future leaders and working together to further develop ourselves have made me excited. My generation’s got a heck of a lot of challenges facing it, but I feel like I can do something about it when I’ve got such a promising group of people to do it with.

So those are some of the fronts on which I have experienced personal growth. As I continue to grow, I notice my mindset shifting from prioritizing personal growth to understanding the global context of my life. While I still do not agree with the sole motive of personal growth for any volunteer trip, I think having the awareness of it can be enough. My goal by the end of my time here is to look back and be satisfied with the growth I underwent, but I hope to find the most pride in what I did while I was here – whether that be making a badass website for Turismo Rural Sayausí, or the love I shared with my host family.


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If you know, you know…
Peace out.

Charlie Dickerson